With a professional career spanning 25 years, Sydney-based photographer Sean Izzard has won widespread acclaim for his advertising and personal photography projects. Who would have thought that from initially working as a forklift driver he would become one of Australia’s most talented and respected photographers? Marc Gafen gets an insight into his world and glimpses the view from the top.
Like many who achieve greatness within their chosen field of specialisation, Sean Izzard was not handed success on a silver platter. He got his start processing film in the darkroom and printing for other photographers.
These days he is frequently chosen to shoot some of the most widely recognised advertising campaigns for global brands including Nike, Mastercard and Johnnie Walker. Part of the reason for finding himself in this rather enviable position may be attributed to his high standards when it comes to making images and his conviction that “you’re only as good as your last picture”.
FROM DARK TO LIGHT
Although his career path was uncertain when he left high school, one thing was clear to the young Izzard – he did not want to go to university. In an unusual stepping stone to a career in photography, he found himself driving a forklift and working in a storeroom filing back issues of magazines where his father worked, Federal Publishing Company (FPC). However, when a photographic cadetship at
FPC became available and he was accepted, his path to professional photography became clearer.
For the first two years of the cadetship, Izzard worked in the darkroom. While his initial training made him a master printer, digital photography would soon render those skills redundant. Even so, he still draws on the things he learned in the darkroom in his digital post-production work, whether editing images himself or overseeing retouchers.
It wasn’t until the third year that he finally got to pick up a camera and do some shooting. Because of the variety of titles under the FPC banner he was treated to a great degree of diversity, shooting everything from motorbikes and boats to circuit boards in the studio.
Brad Kahlefeldt is an Australian triathlete. This shot was part of a campaign for Sanitarium. (Sean Izzard.)
LEARNING THE ROPES
Predominantly self-taught, Izzard still sees the value of formal training, especially when it comes to technical aspects such as how to use camera gear and studio lights. As far as he is concerned, anyone considering formal training should take the view that it’s the solid technical grounding that should be your primary motivation, not the piece of paper you get at the end. If you want to make it as a professional and be paid accordingly he believes you should be able to “talk the technical talk as well as walk the creative walk.”
MOVING TOWARDS ADVERTISING
Following his time at FPC, Izzard decided to go freelance. He returned to Australia after travelling to
find that his two best mates, Simon Harsent and Brett Cochrane, had a share studio together. The logical thing for him to do was join them. During these early days, he shot sport, editorial and design work.
Frustrated with the lack of quality at print stage of editorial work, Izzard decided to move into
advertising; not only were the production values considerably higher but if he was going to work in the
industry then he decided that he should work in the area that was going to be paid the most handsomely.
Unlike the majority of photographers who start advertising photography today, Izzard never worked
as an assistant and instead garnered much of his knowledge from the editorial photographers he
initially worked alongside who simply worked with what was available to them. Very rarely were lights
used and there was almost no production at all. These early experiences had a big impact on the way he shoots today.
“I just don’t get fazed. I can go to most locations with an absolute bare minimum of equipment and
work with what’s there to get a result. And in a big way that’s shaped my style.”
This is from a personal project, ‘Another Place, Another Time’. It is based on my memories of holidaying at Burning Palms, NSW as a child. The notion of memories being quite faded, almost from another lifetime, had me experimenting with slow shutter speeds, and camera movement to help portray these feelings. (Sean Izzard.)
Initially known as a “black-and-white portrait guy”, Izzard says his first big break came when he was
asked to shoot a campaign for Dunlop Retro with Art Director Jay Furby. The assignment was quite
different to what he had done in the past. It entailed detailed set-builds, extensive styling and propping, casting, post-production, and colour! The campaign went on to win numerous awards, both photographic and advertising, and helped establish Izzard as a player at the top end. “It really pushed me out of my comfort zone,” he says, “and it altered people’s thinking of what I was capable of, and mine.”
Since that break, Izzard’s star has been rising and burning brightly. He is constantly in demand and
is called upon to shoot campaigns by some of the biggest brands in the world seeking to inject a little
bit of Izzard into the images that sell their products. And he’s not been restricted to shooting in Australia. Work has taken him throughout Europe, USA, India and parts of Asia including Japan, Thailand, Nepal, China and Bhutan.
Shooting images for advertising is entirely different to other areas of photography, predominately
because the images need to convey a very specific message, and ultimately to sell something. It is
not simply about taking a photograph; grabbing a moment in time as you see it happen. Izzard says
that this is not a luxury often afforded to advertising photographers. The challenge for them is to be able to create a photograph and make it look as if it’s been seen and spontaneously captured although it’s actually been meticulously planned. The process to arrive at the final image often entails many meetings with the client and advertising agency so nothing is left to chance. By the time the shoot takes place the end result has been very clearly outlined. “The greatest challenge for me,” Izzard says, “as someone who has always had a good eye for a photograph, and an ability to see and capture that image, has been to work backwards from there – dissecting and therefore recreating that ‘spontaneous’ moment.”
Another image from the from the ‘Another Place, Another Time’ series based on my memories of holidaying at Burning Palms as a child. (Sean Izzard.)
From someone that used to spend dozens of hours in the darkroom every week, Izzard has not set
foot in one in years. These days he relies on the digital darkroom. His approach to image making
is all about getting the image as correct as possible “in-camera” so that only basic darkroom techniques are applied with Photoshop. He says that these days images are often reliant on more considerable post-production because of budgetary restrictions.
“Shooting for post is a skill in itself. You first need to have the final picture in your head, then
work backwards to ensure all of the elements fit seamlessly together,” he says. “And ultimately what
you’re doing is marrying light and perspective.”
Although many people may not consider advertising images to be “real” captured moments, ironically
Izzard is inspired by reality. And while he knows that this reality may only occur within 1/250th of a
second, and may only be perceived, it’s this that moves him to find beauty where it is not expected.
“My love of photography has always been related to the reality and truth that a great photograph can
reveal,” Izzard says. “So, even in advertising, I aim to create an image still based in this reality.”
The image should also offer some kind of insight as well as being a beautiful picture in its own right.
When it comes to subject matter it’s people that Izzard loves shooting the most.
“I find the human head provides no end of interest,” he says. “Stories held in expressions and
the miles told in wrinkles.”
And in order to capture the “perfect” portrait the subject matter is of paramount importance. He sees
his job as a photographer to be able to utilise light and composition to lead the viewer’s eye through a
picture by using tone (light and dark) and therefore hold their attention. His aim is not simply to produce a pretty picture; rather, to reveal some sort of truth and evoke feelings in the viewer.
Shot for the Football World Cup as part of an Optus campaign. The Tiger was a stock shot. The background was a separate plate that I shot on location while they were shooting the TV commercial (in Fox studios). I had a studio next door where I photographed the action of the players. The players’ actions, (in this case Lucas Neill) were carefully planned to match their interactions with the animals. Lighting and perspective were matched for a seamless result. (Sean Izzard.)
Asked about the greatest changes to photography and image making since he started his career, Izzard points the finger squarely at the advent of digital photography.
“I was one of the last pros to cross over – dragged kicking and screaming into the new age, waving my Polaroids and proof sheets flagrantly in the face of anyone remotely interested. But no one was. Digital had well and truly arrived and was here to stay.”
Digital has made photography far more accessible. In the past, Izzard believes, there was a
magic and mysticism to the whole process that has very much changed.
“You had a realm of skills that the punter just didn’t have; medium and large format cameras, darkroom skills and seemingly profound technical knowledge. Now the field has been opened up completely by virtue of affordable digital cameras with automatic functions. It’s accessible to the masses.”
All of this has undoubtedly had a major impact on the market. What Izzard has noticed is that
this has, to an extent, has devalued the lot of the professional photographer. This, combined with
gross undercutting and the giving away of copyright in a very competitive market doesn’t paint the rosiest of pictures. His view is that because printed digital media has made way for digital media, the market for quality photography has shrunk. As well as this, the technical requirements for digital are far less stringent so inferior quality gets a look in.
Izzard doesn’t mince words when talking about advertising photography. “I’m really not a big fan of the dross that gets produced most of the time,” he says. “Whenever someone approaches me for a job, and it’s probably why they approach me, it’s because I don’t want the final image to look like an advertising shot; I want the shot to look real.”
PEARLS OF WISDOM
Professional photography is now more competitive than ever before, but for those with the passion,
drive and determination it can be a tremendously rewarding and satisfying career. For those keen
to make it in advertising, one of the best pieces of advice Izzard offers is to find, or create, a niche for
yourself. One way to do this is to discover what you are passionate about and follow this path. In a very saturated market he feels this is your best chance of being noticed. While it might initially seem
limiting, he believes that if you develop mastery in a particular area it puts you in a far stronger position in the long run.
But before you even contemplate making a living from photography, your technical skills need to be
particularly sharp. You also need to develop your photographic eye. And according to Izzard, there are a number of ways you can help this process along. A good starting point is to study the work of
photographers you really admire and try to break down what it is about the images that moves you and determine exactly what is at work in the images.
Next, compare it to your own work with the aim of introducing new thinking into how your
approach and capture images. Equally important is to get your work critiqued by those you respect and who can provide useful and constructive feedback.
“Don’t take this criticism personally,” Izzard suggests. “Instead, take it as a contribution and look
to implement the suggestions.”
However, most importantly, he says taking pictures is a discipline and is where you learn the
most. “Just be prolific,” he advises.
Part of a campaign for Voiceless, highlighting the plight of factory-reared animals. Because of the touchiness of the subject, animals had to be sourced and shot separately in the studio. The animals and their backgrounds were combined in post-production. (Sean Izzard.)
AWARDS AND PRIZES
Professional recognition is important for most working photographers, but it’s important to be recognised by the “right” people. Over the years, Izzard has won numerous awards. These include, amongst others, Cannes Lions, British D&AD Annual, Silvers and Bronzes at the Australian Writers and Art Directors awards, Folio awards, One Show, inclusion into all three Luerzer’s Archive Top 200 Ad Photographers in the World Annuals, inclusion into all 10 ACMP collections and being a judge of 2011 Head On portrait prize.
In 2008, Izzard along with Simon Harsent set up ‘Pool’ – a collective of like-minded photographers.
They invited a select group to join them and Pool now has a total of five photographers. The collective
differs from a traditional agency/production company in that the photographers run the business
and employ production and management staff. This approach means the balance is far more in favour of the creative side of the business, encouraging personal work as much as commercial.
“We have taken what works from traditional agencies and dumped what doesn’t. The mix is also essential, with the elders providing the contacts and experience, while the youngsters provide enthusiasm and new ideas. Together we create a space geared towards the sharing of ideas, inspiration and motivation, and ultimately creation and outlet for our work.”
In keeping with their commitment to the nurturing and development of new talent, they have
also recently established the $10,000 annual Pool grant for an emerging photographer, which is now
in its third year.
Road to Vegas. (Sean Izzard.)
Any professional photographer worth their salt will always espouse the importance of personal work to further enhance your creativity and skill as an image maker. And it’s particularly the case in advertising where much of what photographers produce is very much dictated and directed by the agency and client.
Izzard sees personal work as vital for professional development because it’s what sustains you.
“Commercial work can become draining and uninspiring,” he says. “It can become merely a job if
it is your sole objective.
“It’s the personal work and constant experimentation that breathes new life into what
From his experience it is often the personal work that is most regarded or requested by creative
directors to inform who they would most like to work with. After all, they want to be inspired too.
With maturity has come the urge to express and show his personal work. In 2011, Izzard was part
of the Pool show, “Blow Up”, held in a shipping container in Sydney’s Botanical Garden (the first
show of its kind there).
Another project based around the beach at Burning Palms where he spent countless summers
growing up, “Another Time, Another Place,” was hung at the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery. In 2012,
he’ll have an another solo show “Changing Faces”, which is part of a series depicting inhabitants of
Cronulla and is a part of a much wider project including the furthest reaches of Sydney which will also be shown at Hazelhurst.
In order to maintain his focus and passion for photography and stop it from becoming “just a
job”, Izzard stresses the importance of taking stock of what you’re doing and to continually recreate
“Photography is something that I live rather than do. It’s an obsession. This is what I do and have done for all my working life. I rarely switch off, and just as it sometimes seems a curse, it really is a blessing in disguise.
Article first published in the June-July issue of Digital Photography + Design (now Australian Photography + Digital).